If you’re at all familiar with Aaron Sorkin’s HBO show “Newsroom,” you’ve probably seen the famous monologue delivered by main character, Will McAvoy, a brilliant yet cold, brooding, ratings-obsessed nightly news anchor for the fictional Atlantic Cable News (ACN) Network.
“It’s not the greatest country in the world,” McAvoy sharply retorts to a naive college student responsible for the bold question.
“We stood up for what was right. We fought for moral reasons, we passed laws, struck down laws for moral reasons, we waged wars on poverty, not poor people. We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbors. We put our money where our mouths were, and we never beat our chest…
We aspired to intelligence, we didn’t belittle it, it didn’t make us feel inferior. We didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for in our last election, and we didn’t we didn’t scare so easy…
America is not the greatest country in the world anymore.”
The camera pans out to the audience, and in the back someone holds up a sign:
“It’s not, but it can be.”
With each new regulation, congressional hearing, bill proposal, New York Times article, angry Tweet thread, and scathing whitepaper, one thing is certain: the world has fallen out of love with the Internet, but for all the wrong reasons.
As much as we paint it to be, the Internet is not Google and Facebook, Youtube, Amazon, TikTok, rather, the Internet, as its founders intended, is a global, complex, network of billions of computers and electronic devices rapidly communicating 1’s and 0’s bridging massive land, sea, language, and cultural barriers, connecting us all, making us more intimately involved than we ever thought imaginable between absolute strangers. And just like a couple that moves in together for the first time only to discover hidden flaws, quirks, and annoying habits that laid dormant in public, we realize we don’t hate the Internet; we hate each other.
We don’t share to inform. We share for likes, comments, and reactions. We’re addicted to notifications and we crave attention. Our world could be melting around us: failing grades, financial turmoil, troubled homes, fragile marriages, dark insecurities, unhappiness, decaying mental health, and it doesn’t matter. We’ll show you a smiling couple, a cheesy caption, a happy family, a new car, a lifestyle change, clear skin, bodies chiseled by photoshop, lavish vacations. Because no matter how bad things are for us offline, at least we’re “liked” online.
We do it to one up, to feel better, to hide, and in doing so, in constantly shoving our highlight reels down the throats of our newsfeeds and timelines, we desperately hope for that red little blip that quells our insatiable lust to be noticed, to be acknowledged, to be heard. We don’t care about how many people see our Instagram or Snapchat stories, we care about who saw them. Why? Because deep down, the only reason we ever post anything is to spawn emotions of love, envy, or rage. Each post holds a target viewer and a target emotion. Otherwise, what’s the point?
The reality, the unspoken truth of social media, is that we don’t actually care that much about each other. We comment “omg congratulations” but we secretly root for failure. Behind every like and comment lurks jealousy and a toxic desire to do better; to have more likes, more followers, more clout, and admirable ratios. As our numbers grow, so does our resentment. We lash out, we troll, we brigade, we cancel each other – we literally cancel people from the Internet – we destroy lives, we project insecurities, we block, mute, bully, and sometimes even kill the person on the other side of the screen. We use our followers to wage wars. We start raging tire fires and act astonished when Facebook and Twitter fail to put them out.
Can we really blame “the Internet” for our fragiler egos and incessant narcisism? Should we blame Facebook and Instagram and Twitter for making us all weaker-minded, thinner-skinned, meaner individuals? Perhaps – in the same way cable T.V. and videogames caused the childhood obesity epidemic. We use the tools provided to us by the Internet to cultivate these toxic, fake communities that we all pretend to love, because that’s the silent rule we’ve all subscribed to. So couldn’t we go further to say that these behaviors always naturally existed within us and the Internet is merely Baader-Meinhof at work?
Regardless of how we feel about the Internet and its role in promoting anti-social behavior, one thing we can all agree on going into 2020 is that we have a serious problem; one that’s guaranteed to worsen. In response to the obesity epidemic, we cut calories and screen-time, made healthier choices, became more active, and vowed to do better for ourselves. Are we willing to do the same for our online health? Are we willing to limit our exposure, strive to be genuine, listen to opposing sides, resist urges to brigade and cancel, do our own research, thwart fake news and refuse to spread it, ask thoughtful questions and actually listen to the responses, hold back our fervent fingers, practice empathy, and simply be better to each other? Hopefully. Because no regulation nor snippet of code will do that for us.
For many of us, the Internet is not the greatest invention in the world.
But it can be.